The Strangest Viking (2003)

Discovery Civilisation

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Documentary Description

In 865AD a great Viking army invaded Britain. The violence that followed engulfed half the country and altered the course of British history. At the head of the army was a mysterious, fearsome warlord called Ivarr, known to history by his nickname, 'Ivarr the Boneless'. Little is known about Ivarr from historical sources but in the Danish Sagas, larger than life tales written down centuries later, he emerges from the shadows of the Dark Ages in full colour: a great military strategist; a ruthless invader driven by revenge. But an intriguing detail about Ivarr has sparked a remarkable historical quest. The Sagas describe Ivarr's traumatic birth and claim that he had 'only the like of gristle where bones should have been'. They also say he needed staves on which to be carried into battle. Could Ivarr's nickname 'boneless' hint at something exceptional? Nabil Shaban, a writer and performer who suffers from a condition called Brittle Bones Disease, believes that Ivarr may have suffered the same disability. This programme recounts the story of the most brutal invasion Britain has ever suffered and follows Nabil's quest to explore the possibility that Ivarr, the leader of the invasion, was physically disabled. (C4 Press)

Ivar Ragnarsson (died possibly 873 nicknamed the Boneless (inn beinlausi), was a Danish or Swedish Viking chieftain and by reputation also a berserker. By the late 11th century he was known as a son of the powerful Ragnar Lodbrok, ruler of an area probably comprising parts of Denmark and Sweden. In the autumn of 865 A.D., with his brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson (Halfdene) and Ubbe Ragnarsson (Hubba), Ivar led the Great Heathen Army in the invasion of the East Anglian region of England. An accommodation was quickly reached with the East Anglians.

The following year, Ivar led his forces north on horseback and easily captured York (which the Danes called Jorvik) from the Northumbrians who were at that time engaged in a civil war. Ivar and the Danes succeeded in holding York against a vain attempt to relieve the city in A.D. 867.

Ivar is also attributed with the slaying of St. Edmund of East Anglia in 869 AD. The story is first known from Abbo of Fleury's Latin passion of King Edmund and Ælfric's Old English adaptation thereof. By their accounts, when Edmund refused to become the vassal of a pagan, he was killed in much the same way as St Sebastian was martyred. Ivar had Edmund bound to a tree, whereupon Vikings shot arrows into him until he died. According to later accounts, Edmund was shot in the nave of a church.

Sometime after 869 Ivar leaves command of the Great Heathen Army and of the Danes in England to his brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ubbe. He appears to have emigrated to Dublin (or, according to some, returned to resume a previous lordship).

According to Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) in his Gesta Danorum, Ivar's family was of Swedish origin and had only recently established itself in Denmark. The father of Ragnar Lodbrók in all sources is Sigurd Ring, whom Saxo uniquely states to have been a son of Ingjald of the Swedish Ynglings.

However, in all other sources, yet all possibly later than Saxo's, the father of Sigurd Ring is given as Randver. But this is where their agreement ends and each give Randver a different ancestry, three in all. Perhaps the most plausible of these alternatives is that offered by the Hervarar saga, which gives his father as Valdar, an attractive answer in part because a certain Valdar, perhaps once identical, is named as an ancestor of the mighty Ivar Vidfamne who may or may not contribute to the character of Ivar Beinlaus. In any case theirs is a Danish or Scylding lineage.

More confusing is the tradition found in the Sögubrot and the Lay of Hyndla, which give Randver as the son of Raobaror of Garoariki, which to the Norse in the timeframe of composition referred to the great hybrid Scandinavian-Finno-Slavic state of Kievan Rus ruled over by the historical Rurikid Dynasty. Finally, the controversial Hversu Noregr byggoist gives Randver's father as Hroerekr Ringslinger, making him a brother of Harald Wartooth.

Ivar is widely believed to be identical with the founder of the Ui Imair or House of Ivar, a dynasty which at various times from the mid-9th through the 10th century ruled Northumbria from the capital of York, and dominated the Irish Sea region from the Kingdom of Dublin. Their apparent descendants, the House of Godred Crovan, ruled as Kings of Mann and the Isles from the 11th well into the 13th century, although they were vassals of the Kings of Norway for most of this time.

Ivar disappears from the historic record sometime after 870. His ultimate fate is uncertain. It is possible that Ivar may be identical to the Ímar, apparent ancestor of the Ui Imair dynasty, whose death appears in the Annals of Ulster in 873: Imar, king of the Norsemen of all Ireland and Britain, ended his life. The death of Imar is also recorded in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland under the year 873: The king of Lochlainn, i.e. Gothfraid, died of a sudden hideous disease. Thus it pleased God.

The identification of the king of Lochlainn as Gothfraid (i.e. Ímar's father) was added by a copyist in the 17th century. In the original 11th-century manuscript the subject of the entry was simply called righ Lochlann ("the king of Lochlainn"), which more than likely referred to Ímar, whose death is not otherwise noted in the Fragmentary Annals. The cause of death – a sudden and horrible disease – is not mentioned in any other source, but it raises the interesting possibility that the true provenance of Ivar's Old Norse sobriquet lay in the crippling effects of an unidentified disease that struck him down at the end of his life; though "sudden and horrible" death by any number of diseases was a common cause of mortality in the 9th century.

Source: Wikipedia


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